A binder lying on the living room table at the home of Yisrael Amram, a 72-year-old grandfather of eight from Ashkelon, holds pictures of a very muscular man who clearly put a lot of time and effort into bodybuilding. “Mr. Israel 1979,” says the caption on one clipping from 40 years ago. “I was a short and scrawny kid. I had to defend myself,” he said this week, explaining his impressive achievement.
Behind his need to protect himself lies an incredible story that sounds like it could have made a script for a Hollywood blockbuster. A story whose details the hero was only able to fill in recently, with the aid of his mother’s secret diaries, which he had never seen before she died.
Before getting into his story, Amram pulls out a Haaretz newspaper clipping from 63 years ago: “A young Jewish woman and her son who lived in Jordan since 1948 have been returned,” it says. “The Jewish woman and her son, whose father was a Polish soldier, were handed over yesterday morning to the Israeli authorities at the Mandelbaum Gate crossing, after they had been in Jordan since Israel’s founding.”
The article goes on to say that the woman had been incarcerated for several years in “The Kishle” prison in Jerusalem’s Old City, after she was convicted of spying for Israel. The woman was Yisrael Amram’s mother, Sara.
He was born in 1947 in the Christian Hospital in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, and named Ivan Alexandrov. His mother Sara was a Jewish immigrant from Afghanistan who adopted a fictitious identity as a Russian Christian woman named Katerina Alexandrova. His father was a Christian Ukrainian soldier who served in the Polish Anders’ Army in World War II and later ended up in Mandatory Palestine with his battalion.
Why did the Jewish Afghani woman choose to wear a crucifix around her neck to pose as a Christian? Amram says that at first she did so to make it easier to pass to the other side of the barbed wire fences that separated the two sections of the city, to buy food at the market in Jordan, where it was cheaper.
“She would ‘fly’ through the alleyways and courtyards and she was able to get into the heart of the Old City by hidden paths. She didn’t recognize borders,” says her son.
When Amram was a year old, his father returned to Europe and had no further contact with him. He and his mother later went to live in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, which was then under Jordanian rule. His mother used her boldness, chutzpah, facility with language, life skills and physical beauty to build a new and exciting life for herself.
The Zionist spy
From poring through the diaries left behind when she died, Amram has learned just how deep a foundation his mother built for herself in the Jordanian kingdom. “Within just a few years, she did things that are unbelievable,” he says, listing some of the jobs she held. She worked as a secretary for the Jordanian prime minister, held a job with the Jordanian national police, was deputy editor of a popular newspaper and worked with UNRWA, the UN’s refugee relief agency.
But the topper, he says, were the ties she forged with King Abdullah and his grandson Hussein. “That’s when I realized that my mother had very high status in Jordan,” he says. Due to the nature of the material, many details of this story are impossible to verify. Some of it reads like a suspense novel. Other parts await the day when archives are opened and they can be confirmed. But it appears certain that Sara Amram, or Katerina Alexandrova, used her new life to spy on behalf of Israel.
One piece of evidence for this is an old oil lamp kept by Yisrael Amram’s half-brother, the son of his mother and another man. It was this lamp that ultimately incriminated her and led, eventually, to their return to Israel. It happened in 1953, when Yisrael Amram was six. “I’ll never forget the sight of the Jordanian chief police at our front door,” he says.
His men went through everything in the house, apparently acting on a tip from an informant. Then their eyes fell on the oil lamp in the living room. One of the officers took it and broke it over his knee. “Dozens of little pieces of paper that were hidden there fell out, and a little bit of foreign money, too. On them my mother had written all the secrets and sensitive information she’d collected about the Jordanian army and government,” Amram says. Over the years, she had been relaying this information to Israel via a neighbor who worked for the United Nations, he says.
According to his mother’s diary, King Hussein himself visited her after she was arrested. He told her: “Just confess and that will be the end of it. You are a Jew, a patriot, you worked on behalf of your people and your country and that is fine. I would have done the same thing in your place. Confess and that will be the end of it.” But she refused and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Her sentence was ultimately reduced after she played one of the cards she’d kept close to her chest. She revealed to the authorities a piece of intelligence she’d picked up over the years that had to do with the Jordanian government’s ties with an underground Communist movement in the country.
“They cut her sentence to three years, and the next day all the newspaper headlines in Jordan screamed that the government had fallen because of the Zionist female spy,” Amram says.
While his mother was in prison, he was raised in an orphanage in Ramallah that had taken in Palestinian refugees from the War of Independence. There, separated from his mother, he began trying to build up his muscles. At first it was because he wanted to feel on an equal footing with the other young orphans at the institution. Later after his mother’s release from prison, it became a way for him to integrate into Israel, a country he didn’t know at all.
“Suddenly I was told that my mother was being freed and we were going to Israel. I was in shock,” he says. He was nine at the time, a boy who’d grown up as a Christian among Palestinian Arabs, and regarded himself as one of them. When his mother was released, Jordanian soldiers drove them to the border crossing with Israel, where a Russian representative was waiting to meet her – as she had always insisted that she was an innocent Russian citizen and not an Israeli spy.
But once they boarded the Israeli truck, she shouted for all to hear: “My name is Sara Amram, I am a Jew and I am staying in Israel.”
A missing sister
Once In Israel, Amram met his grandfather, aunts and uncles. They all spoke Hebrew, a language he didn’t yet know. At school, the other kids called him “Arab” and beat him up. At the synagogue he was harassed by other worshippers, who wondered why he didn’t know the language of the prayers. Soon afterward, he was circumcised at a hospital in Jaffa, at his mother’s insistence. The operation, performed without anesthesia, he says, when he was 10, left him with traumatic memories. At 14, he etched a Star of David into his arm, in another attempt to prove his Jewishness and be accepted. He still has the scar.
His mother Sara did not reintegrate well in Israel and became an irritable and unhappy woman who sometimes lashed out at him with great violence, he says. He found some relief from all the tension by working out in the gym and bodybuilding.
When she died a year ago, his mother took many secrets with her to the grave, but she left behind her diaries, from which he was able to piece together part of the puzzle of his life. He has since self-published an autobiographical book entitled “My Mother, the Spy” (in Hebrew).
Last month, excerpts from the book were published in Kan Darom, an Ashkelon magazine. But the story doesn’t end there. At least one part of the puzzle remains a mystery.
On a creased, faded pink piece of paper found with his mother’s things, she wrote of a girl named Yonanda whom she gave birth to (the note does not specify when). “She was deceitfully stolen from me right when I gave birth to her privately-secretly,” Sara Amram wrote. Will Yisrael Amram ever find his lost sister and whatever missing pieces of his life that might come with her?